Gordon Elliott has a golden opportunity to clinch his maiden Guinness Galway Handicap Hurdle this evening as Felix Desjy heads the betting going into the festival’s Thursday showpiece, writes Will Jennings.
For all the champion trainer’s National Hunt hegemony the 2m, Grade B Ballybrit bout is one race the master of Cullentra is yet to win, reigning supreme in the Tote Galway Plate on three occasions but never over the nine hurdles the following day.
Davy Russell is the man on board Elliott’s seven-year-old and Felix Desjy comes into the contest with considerable form, winning two of his last three races including an imperious prep run at Navan where he stormed to an eight-length triumph.
And that result came after a brilliant Grade One victory in Aintree’s Betway Top Novices’ Hurdle, where he beat Willie Mullins’ Aramon - also well-placed to challenge in this year’s race - by a length and a half.
Felix Desjy spearheads the Elliott charge but stablemate Aramax will also pose a threat on the Ballybrit terrain, with Mark Walsh in the saddle fresh off his thrilling Tote Galway Plate triumph aboard Early Doors on Wednesday.
Walsh delivered an expert performance in the famous JP McManus green and gold and will don those same colours again on Thursday evening, as Aramax bids to make it three wins from three races.
The precocious four-year-old won at Naas back in February before taking the Cheltenham Festival by storm, scooping the Grade Three Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle by a length over David Pipe’s Night Edition.
Elliott may not boast the most glittering record in this race but told the Racing Post both his mounts have ‘decent’ chances, with Felix Desjy ‘retaining all his old enthusiasm’ after missing last season through injury.
The trainer noted Felix Desjy is in ‘great shape’, while Aramax is an ‘improving’ young horse who should do well in the race should he keep a ‘good early position’.
It’s not all about Elliott at Ballybrit, however, as old rival Mullins enters both Buildmeupbuttercup and Aramon bidding to win his third Guinness Galway Hurdle Handicap in the last five years.
Two-time Cheltenham Gold Cup winning jockey Paul Townend hops aboard Buildmeupbuttercup, who is without a win in in six starts but showed signs of promise at Cheltenham’s Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle.
And Patrick Mullins takes the ride on Aramon, who looked brilliant in his prep run at Tipperary when he won the Keven McManus Bookmaker Grimes Hurdle and also finished second in the Grade Three Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle - two places ahead of
Mullins also saddles Mt Leinster, Shanning and Tiger Tap Tap, noting that Aramon is in ‘good form’ and Buildmeupbuttercup ‘runs well at big festivals’ and is versatile when it comes to dealing with ground.
The three-time race winner also reckons Mt Leinster ‘handles the track’, while Shanning likes the Ballybrit course and Tiger Tap Tap has work to do after finishing last in Monday’s Connacht Hotel Handicap.
Elsewhere, Olly Murphy enters Hunters Call while Charles Byrnes’ Wonder Laish comes into the race as second-favourite after a third at Tipperary - behind Aramon - in Grade Three company last month.
Tony Martin’s Tudor City could also pose a threat over the 2m, while John McConnell enters Play The Game and Hannon and Henry de Bromhead opts for Petit Mouchoir, Moon Over Germany and Due Reward - with partner in crime Rachael Blackmore on board.
It’s a competitive field and while Elliott targets a maiden Guinness Galway Hurdle Handicap triumph, the stage is set for an absolute humdinger at 6:45 on Thursday evening.